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Center for Action and Contemplation
A Contemplative Heart
A Contemplative Heart

Waking up to Life 

Monday, August 28, 2023

In a virtual retreat for Turning to the Mystics podcast listeners, James Finley shares his wisdom on living a contemplative way of life in the world: 

The contemplative way of life is so called because it’s the way of life devoted to the cultivation of contemplative experience. That’s our starting place. To contemplate means to observe carefully, to pay close attention. Most of the things that we notice, we notice in passing, on our way to something else; then, every so often, something gives us reason to pause. Something catches our eye or draws our attention, and we’re drawn for a moment to ponder or to reflect on that which awakened us in this way. [1]  

Finley offers examples of moments in which we awaken to God’s presence in the “cosmic dance”: 

Without warning, we find ourselves falling into the abyss of a star-strewn sky or find our heart impaled by a child’s laughter or the unexpected appearance of the beloved’s face. Without warning we lose our footing in the silence broken and, in the breaking, deepened by the splash of a frog we did not know was there.  

What is so extraordinary about such moments is that nothing beyond the ordinary is present. It is just a starlit sky, a child at play. It is just the primal stuff of life that has unexpectedly broken through the mesh of opinions and concerns that all too often hold us in their spell. It is just life in the immediacy of the present moment before thought begins. Here, in this unforeseen defenselessness, is granted the contemplative experience, however obscure it might be, that we are the cosmic dance of God, that the present moment, just the way it is, is already, in its deepest actuality, the fullness of union with God we seek. [2]  

We choose a contemplative way of life when we recognize and return to these moments of awakening

These moments pass and the real question then for us is, “What happens next?” All too often, unfortunately, nothing happens next. The gate to Heaven opened and your cell phone went off. You were already late to a meeting. Nothing happened next.  

But sometimes what happens is that although the moment has passed, you reflect back upon it, and you realize that the subtle moment was a kind of homecoming. You settled, with a sense like “I belong here.” When you start understanding your life in the light of these moments, you realize this feeling that you’re skimming over the surface of the depths of your own life. It’s all the more unfortunate because God’s unexplainable oneness with us is hidden in the depths over which we’re skimming. Then there’s the gift of a holy discontent. We say to ourselves “I don’t like living this way.” I don’t like living exiled from this inner richness that from time-to-time visits me and quickens me from within…. I want to abide in the depths so fleetingly glimpsed. [3]  


[1] Adapted from James Finley, Turning to the Mystics: Virtual Retreat, day 2 (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2022). Video and transcript unavailable. 

[2] James Finley, The Contemplative Heart (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2000), 24–25. 

[3] Finley, Turning to the Mystics: Virtual Retreat, day 2. 

Image credit: A path from one week to the next—Taylor Wilson, Ruah (detail), print. Izzy Spitz, Chemistry of Self 3 (detail), digital oil pastels. Izzy Spitz, momentary peace (detail), digital oil pastels. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image

Like this simple shape, the contemplative heart is found in the simplicity of everyday life. 

Story from Our Community:  

I am an ordained metaphysical minister and a heart-centered thought leader for recovery from addiction. After 37 years of continuous sobriety, I found myself overwhelmed by disconnectedness and anxiety that had slowly crept into my life in the past few years. James Finley’s writing in the Daily Meditations about depression came to me at just the right moment. It may have saved my life. In the past two days, I have finally been able to admit that I need help. Incredibly, help has arrived. I compassionately encourage others who are struggling to reach out and welcome the support that is available to you. As I begin this new journey, I am walking with the words: “To thine own self Be True.” —Katherine B. 

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